Domaine Georges Lignier’s Benoit Stehly’s visits F+R

Benoit has had complete control at Domaine Georges Lignier since 2007 after taking over from his uncle. He had been working on the family estate since he was a kid, helping out at harvest and during bottling in the summer holidays. Only after his studies in 1999 did he join the domaine full time . It took a few years for Benoit to gain his uncles trust and allow him to start making tweaks and changes in the winery. The domaine has been on a steady upswing in quality since he took over and whilst his first changes were in the winery – investing in winery equipment, extending fermentation times and releasing the wines unfiltered, it was the changes he made in the vineyard that he feels have had the biggest impact on the quality.

In 2012 he introduced permanent grass to his vineyards, the only grower in Morey Saint Denis to do so. At the time many of his neighbours thought this was a crazy move. Initially it was to reduce erosion on his steep grand cru sites but a second and more important reason came to the forefront when he could see that the grass increased competition for nutrients in the soil, forcing vines to go deeper into the ground. This has the knock-on effect of slowing down the ripening in the warmer vintages. It is the all-important slow ripening of grapes in all marginal climates that allow for the complex flavours to fully develop. It is why global warming is such a concern in all the world’s top winemaking regions. Fine wine regions are regions in which grapes exist on the margins of just being ripe enough. It is these marginal regions that will feel the effects of just a few degrees due to global warming most strongly .

Benoit already believes global warming is having an effect in Burgundy; he states these days it is very easy to over-ripen Pinot Noir in Burgundy and in order for it to retain its unique characteristics not only are his deep vines essential but an early picking regime is also important. The additional benefit of deeper roots caused by the effect of the permanent grass also means the wines are less stressed in drier vintages and therefore do not shut down during the summer droughts. He feels this has really saved his vineyards from the effects of global warming. In the recent run of warm vintages (2015, 2017 and 2018) he is well aware that many winemakers in the area have struggled to finish fermentation due to ripeness levels being too high and also the danger of losing balance in the wine, the result producing Pinot Noir that is too heavy, too soft and lacking in freshness.

Another fortunate position Benoit has inherited is the age of his vines. Benoit explains that his great grandfather was the first in the village to own a tractor and at the time this new contraption allowed him to replant all his vines over the period of 1950 to 1955 which means today he has inherited some very old vines. Some of his vineyards are even older than this since at the time his great grandfather was replanting, his great grandmother had inherited her own vineyards but refused to let her husband to touch her vineyards with the new tractor. These vines date back as early as 1926.

The even ripening throughout the season on naturally low yields from old vines allows Benoit to pick grapes early without concern for not reaching phenolic maturity. In the last 3 vintages (2018, 2017, 2016) he was one of the first to pick in Morey, producing fresh, mineral style wines with great energy.

Another central point, beyond Georges Lignier’s vineyards and doing much for the upswing in quality in Burgundy in general, is the new found collaboration of the younger generations of winemakers in Burgundy. Within previous generations after the Second World War there was plenty of distrust and damaged relationships between producers even within the same villages. Two generations on, there has never been more interconnection between producers. With the additional development of consultant oenologists there is real sharing of knowledge and experience throughout the region. Benoit explains that one consultant oenologist may work with up to 40 domaines, all of these sharing their experiences and learning from one another.

Benoit makes a point of tasting plenty of wines from across the Cote d’Or to understand how people “translate the grapes”. His feet remain firmly on the ground but this might is not the case for everyone. He thinks the sudden surge in popularity has gone to some winemakers’ heads. There are winemakers out there that do not collaborate and do not taste others wines and also have not adapted with the changing climate. But for Benoit and Domaine Georges Lignier the wines have never been better.

Despite the upswing in quality, Benoit has genuine concerns about the future. First of all, the growth in global demand for Burgundy is unprecedented and has grown very fast. Benoit recounts a family joke that in the 1970s, demand was so low his uncle wanted to grub up his vines in Volnay 1er cru and breed cattle instead, believing it to be a better investment than to continue with wine production! In just 50 years there has been a complete transformation and in the last 10 years an exponential surge in demand. For Benoit such quick changes could be disastrous in terms of ownership. Land prices are becoming too high for the next generation to buy the land if there is an inheritance dispute. The astronomical prices offered for some historic domains have been too good to miss.

Collaboration in Burgundy however is something to be positive about for the future. Benoit is part of the Morey Saint Denis Wine Growers association and together they are investing in more detailed analysis of their vineyards for them to improve the wines of the appellation as a whole together. When I ask Benoit what the most important elements to making the best wines possible are , he answers with a rather fitting restaurant analogy. “What makes a good restaurant?” There are so many elements and all are important: The ingredients, the skills of the chef, the equipment used, the service provided, the ambience. All of these individual elements and the many variables within them can occur collaboratively to produce our overall opinion; it is the same with wine.

For Benoit his future plans are to preserve what he has. To preserve both the old vines he has inherited, the terroir they are grown on and to make this terroir as transparent as possible. For Benoit to produce red Burgundy rather than simply Pinot Noir, freshness and terroir transparency is essential and this couldn’t be clearer than in his 2017s.